Maybe they were weary of Beltway gridlock. Maybe they wanted to ward off gay marriage. Or maybe Main Street conservatives just got tired of electing representatives who didn't represent them. Whatever their catalyst, voters in key states on Election Day transformed the GOP's tenuous control over Congress into a solid power base, clearing the way for a Bush presidency free of the congressional chokehold that virtually strangled the administration's first-term agenda.
The GOP posted a net gain of four seats in the Senate, crafting a 55-44 majority, and a four-seat gain in the House-not major, but another incremental gain over 2002's six-seat gain.
The power shift has advanced the hopes of conservative legislators and activists who hope to cement President Bush's first-term tax cuts, see judges confirmed whose nominations the Senate scotched, and push forward reforms such as school choice. And then there is the gift that keeps on giving: With a friendly Congress and four more years in office, Mr. Bush's chances of appointing at least two new Supreme Court justices have increased exponentially-possibly decreasing for years to come the power of activist liberal judges across the states.
The judicial issue in particular made John Thune's stunning ouster of Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) a victory of national importance. The defeated Senate minority leader "was the initiator of the Democratic strategy to filibuster everything in the Senate," said Free Congress Foundation head Paul Weyrich. "Good judges, tax cuts, the marriage amendment. You name it, he wanted to filibuster it."
Indeed, Republicans blamed Mr. Daschle for thwarting much of the president's first-term agenda. Now that Mr. Daschle, after 18 years in Congress, is headed toward some post-congressional afterlife, Mr. Weyrich said his obstructionist tactics are likely to go with him. His presumptive successor, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), "is not going to employ the filibuster-everything strategy," Mr. Weyrich said. "There will be a lot of pressure from inside his caucus not to do that."
Yet a kinder, gentler Democratic Caucus is not likely to emerge from a renewed sense of statesmanship but rather from simple math. Republicans now will be able to add up to two GOP members to each congressional committee, increasing their majority. "There is now the chance to out-vote Arlen Specter," said Mr. Weyrich, noting that the liberal Republican senator often votes with Democrats, creating a thin majority that stalls conservative policy. For that, conservatives have to thank John Thune, who "ran a brilliant campaign," according to Mr. Weyrich.
South Dakotans elected Mr. Thune to the House in 1998 and 2000 before he lost a Senate bid in 2002. Last week, though, he edged out the incumbent in a 2-point win after a campaign that exposed Mr. Daschle's liberal voting record. Again and again, Mr. Thune told voters that the senator had lost touch with most South Dakotans, particularly on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. A majority of those who cast ballots on Election Day agreed-even some Democrats. Kent Foster, 32, a registered Democrat, said he voted for Mr. Daschle in previous elections, but this time picked a different horse. "I hate to lose [Daschle's] clout," he said of the incumbent. "But I think he's been in D.C. too long. He's gotten away from his roots."
Farmer Dick Fennel and his wife also voted for Mr. Thune. "We just don't feel Daschle has been representing our views. He's just way too liberal for the state of South Dakota."
Oklahomans apparently shared similar sentiments about Democrat Brad Carson, who lost his bid for an open Republican Senate seat to former GOP Rep. Tom Coburn, a physician and staunch social conservative. Mr. Weyrich described Mr. Coburn as a keen strategist who knows how to use legislative rules to get things done even without a majority. While serving in the House, for example, he once brought the chamber to a virtual standstill by threatening to attach 130 amendments to an appropriations bill he thought cost too much.
Once he learns the Senate rules, Mr. Weyrich said, he'll tie liberals in knots: "Nobody owns Tom Coburn-he's nobody's 'boy.'" Oklahoma Family Policy Council executive director Mike Jestes agreed, noting that Mr. Coburn is more outspoken about his Christian faith and social beliefs than was his predecessor, Sen. Don Nickles, also a conservative Republican. "Coburn has a history in Congress. He's not a new kid on the block, and will yield a lot of influence on medical issues, particularly abortion, abstinence, and women's health."
A lukewarm stance on abortion almost cost Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) her seat, after Alaska Right to Life refused to endorse her in the heavily Republican state. But Ms. Murkowski held on to defeat former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles. Meanwhile, Colorado Republican and brewing company heir Pete Coors lost his Senate bid to Democratic Attorney General Ken Salazar.
But Georgia voters swept GOP Rep. Johnny Isakson into Democrat Zell Miller's vacated seat. And Republicans swept open Senate seats in the Carolinas, riding waves of voter conservatism and distaste for former President Bill Clinton and vice presidential contender John Edwards.
In North Carolina, Republican Rep. Richard Burr bested former Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles in a battle for the seat vacated by John Kerry's running mate. Mr. Burr, endorsed by former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and his successor Elizabeth Dole, courted social conservatives on issues like abortion and traditional marriage. Mr. Burr initially trailed his opponent. But in the run-up to the election, he turned a televised debate to his advantage, flooded the airwaves with ads linking Mr. Bowles to Mr. Clinton, and-buoyed by voter turnout for Mr. Bush-sailed to victory.
In South Carolina, GOP Rep. Jim DeMint captured an open Democratic seat, defeating challenger Inez Tenenbaum, who styled herself a pro-military, pro-family independent. But in the end, said South Carolina Policy Council president Edward McMullen Jr., voters judged true conservatism based on the candidates' records. Mr. DeMint had piled up a formidable one in Congress as a pro-defense, tax-cutting, fiscal conservative who supported Mr. Bush on defense issues. Mr. DeMint also campaigned for school choice, a concept 68 percent of South Carolinians support, but which Ms. Tenenbaum, state education superintendent, opposes.
"Taxes, defense, and school choice. I think those were the three issues that brought home the base for Jim DeMint," said Mr. McMullen. Elsewhere in the South, former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez (R) solidified support within Florida's large Hispanic community to squeak past Democrat Betty Castor, a popular former education superintendent. A close Bush ally, he'll be the first Cuban-American to serve in the Senate. And GOP Rep. David Vitter surpassed all expectations to grab 51 percent of the vote in Louisiana's messy, seven-way race. He'll now become Louisiana's first Republican senator since Reconstruction.
Social issues failed to bring Republican Senate candidate Alan Keyes anywhere close to victory in Illinois. Land of Lincoln voters elected instead charismatic state senator Barak Obama in a 70-29 landslide. Mr. Obama's national star rose after his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in July. His victory flipped the open Illinois Senate seat from Republican to Democratic control.
Mr. Keyes, a conservative commentator and former U.S. ambassador, joined the race in August after Republican Jack Ryan abandoned his candidacy under threat of a looming sex scandal. That left Mr. Keyes with barely 90 days to mount a campaign. Not only was he a latecomer-he came from afar: A Marylander, he established Illinois residency in order to run against Mr. Obama.
"Many people here saw that as a desperate measure," said Wheaton College assistant political science professor Amy Black. But she added that Mr. Keyes's fiery rhetorical style probably cost him as much as his out-of-towner status. Indeed, he often instigated controversy in the campaign, branding Mr. Obama a "socialist" and comparing the Democrat's stand on abortion to that of slaveholders.
As in the Senate, House Republicans picked up four seats in a year when some pundits expected the GOP to lose ground. While Democrats battled Republicans for a one-seat gain in 49 states, a groundswell in Texas instead gave five. The GOP's redistricting of the state created lost causes for many long-time Texas Democrats like Charlie Stenholm and Martin Frost. But Democrats could celebrate at least one race in the state. Despite concerted efforts by Republicans, including an Election Eve stopover by Mr. Bush, Democrat Chet Edwards held onto his House seat and will continue to serve as the president's congressman.